The partnership of Peter Bingham and Wen Wei Wang is a surprising one. Bingham is an older dancer, in his mid-fifties, and widely known as a master of contact improvisation. Wang, fourteen years younger, studied Chinese dance from a young age, was a member of Ballet British Columbia for several years and has a growing reputation as a contemporary choreographer.
The pair first performed together in 2003, when they premiered a twenty-minute structured improvisation called “Thirst” at the EDAM studio/theatre. At this point, “Thirst” was an intimate, deeply felt work in which the two men moved closely together but never actually touched. Now, two years later, comes the present sixty-minute version. Did “Thirst” fill that whole hour — three times its original running time? And did it carry in the cavernous, high-ceilinged Faris Family Studio, which seats 150, three times that of EDAM’s tiny space?
In the more formal atmosphere, with long black curtains enclosing the stage space on three sides, the still intimate and deeply felt “Thirst” seems more serious, even austere. Its focussed, meditative course is not compromised and, despite the longer running time, there are only two short sections of allegro movement. The increased time is used to build tension: nothing is rushed. One or two parts continue perhaps a minute too long, but the overall sense of purpose and direction is polished and precise.
The obviously deep connection between the dancers, who are costumed in dark pants and white tank tops, continues to be expressed sparingly and with restraint. Although closely in touch for every moment of the hour — if they’re not physically near they remain mentally connected — Bingham and Wang still do not actually touch. The thirst of the title is never slaked. Or maybe it is at the very end, when they take their bows holding hands.
What gives this work, despite its austerity, such heart is the men’s close relationship. Whether directly watching or indirectly sensing, they always move in clear awareness of what the other is doing. They are not dancing in isolation; nor are they on modern-dance autopilot. Often, one man looks directly at the other, watches for a moment and then seems to move in response to what he sees.
This close, inspired partnership positively charges their dancing. I’ve never seen Wang move so fully, combining light, aerial qualities with groundedness. Both nights, fluid and free, he spun tightly and extended his legs high, with lively port de bras that engaged the whole spine. One long, strong arabesque stood out for its calm, earthbound focus, and he sometimes squatted or stretched out on the ground. Wang often finished his line with a flexed foot, but not so determinedly as in the past, when it seemed like an anchor stubbornly appended to the end of every extension.
Bingham offers a contrasting presence: calm and completely comfortable in his weaving, swaying dance. At this stage of his career, there are no thrilling tricks but this is not to say there is no virtuosity. That is expressed in a different way – in the clarity and attention given to each moment and in the integrity with which he performs. He knows why he is there on stage in front of us, and that confidence is reassuring.
I attended both performances, curious as to how different this structured improvisation would be each night; to my eye, it remained remarkably constant. Specific movements changed or were not repeated the second time, but the intentions of the various sections remained the same and some moments reoccur as exactly as in many fully choreographed works. For instance, both nights they stood side by side at the same place and at the same time (apparently cued by the sound) and took the same beat to check in with each other before moving into the section where they walk upstage on fingers and toes like giant insects.
One element that is fully set is the soundtrack, which, along with the lighting, leads the dancers through the hour. Bingham and Wang created the constantly evolving sound score using a mix of classical music, a jazz vocalist, industrial sounds, radio announcements, flute, their own voices and the sounds of water and rain. One of the most effective passages comes when Wang, speaking in Chinese, is heard at the same time as Bingham; for myself, not understanding Chinese, Wang’s voice was like music running underneath the English prose. Bingham’s final voice over about the death of a tree could have been more understated, however, in keeping with the rest of the score and with the piece as a whole.
The performers also place themselves carefully within the preset guidelines of James Proudfoot’s excellent lighting. Both nights, Wang, lying on his back in the dark, curls his fingers and toes upwards so they are picked out in the sparse light above.
With so much established order, why not just set everything exactly? Perhaps it has something to do with giving themselves freedom to create before the audience nightly. Like actors, Bingham and Wang are working from a script, which they interpret. Their script gives them moments to breathe freely, as it were, and necessitates a close interaction, which adds a human element.
“Thirst” is not a lazy or easy work, as some improvisations, like some choreographed works, can be. Rather, it is a striking example of the possibilities of structured improvisation when the structure is solid, the improvisation is accomplished and the performers are rigorous in following through with their intentions. Although the choreography is created in the instant, “Thirst” is a finely crafted work of art.
By Kaija Pepper